Once again an African government is unable to secure its territory. Once again the only country willing to come to its timely rescue is the former colonial power: as Britain in Sierra Leone and France in Cote d’Ivoire, now it is France in Mali. So, once again Europe is engaged militarily in Africa. Given the understandable African discomfort with the military return of colonial powers, an alternative means of delivering security is surely desirable.
Security is subject to powerful economies of scale: small is dangerous. With Africa divided into 54 impoverished states, the typical economy is too small to finance adequate security. The French and British economies are vast in comparison. But even scale is not enough: to be effective an army needs motivation, and in practice this needs a sense of nationalism. Lacking scale and strong national identity, the typical African country has an ineffective army.
Europe has an interest in providing security for Africa because, as the attempted piracy in Algeria demonstrates, African security is a global public good. But the multilateral provision of security for Africa faces acute impediments from free riding and a lack of unified authority. For example, the substantial multilateral force in the DRC has recently repeated the impotent history of the UN in Sierra Leone and Rwanda. Rebels well understand that multilateral forces are merely decorative. They lack the mandate and the incentive to fight. In contrast, the British forces in Sierra Leone, and the French in Cote d’Ivoire and Mali, have been willing to kill in order to face down their opponents. But even this only works in contexts in which European casualties are very light. The former colonial powers are the only foreign countries willing to kill for Africa, but even they are not willing to die for Africa. So, the multilateral security for Africa is only fitfully effective, whether provided by Europeans or globally.
Security is also a regional public good: insecurity in one state threatens its neighbours. Indeed, it is such a spillover that accounts for the current crisis in Mali. Until the fall of the Gaddafi regime in Libya released a stockpile of weapons into the neighbourhood, Mali was not, by African standards, insecure. It did not feature on any of the three global lists of fragility: World Bank, OECD, and EC. Not only has Europe an interest in restoring security in Mali, it also has a responsibility, since by demolishing Gaddafi without securing his weapons European intervention generated the problem (as I recently argued in The Financial Times).
That Mali has proved vulnerable should scare many other African governments. While the global threat is merely the irritation of increased terrorism, that to the neighbouring governments is potentially existential. Since these regional spillovers are so much greater than the global, the necessary scale economies are better reaped at the regional level. Regional cooperation may be much easier to motivate than global cooperation. There are evident difficulties even with a regional approach. Being acutely short of revenues, African states are understandably reluctant to pool finance for anything. They could not even muster the solidarity to pay for the new African Union building, let alone a common army. But Africans have proved more willing than Europeans to die for other Africans: hence the tolerance of high African casualties in Somalia. The obvious structure of cooperation is pan-European money and pan-African troops. A pan-African force might potentially even overcome the challenge of motivation. While in Africa national identity is much weaker than in Europe, continental identity is much stronger.
To date efforts at European-pan-African military cooperation have proved frustrating: as with global multilateralism the issues of free-riding and authority must be addressed. But at least with this approach the deep structural incentives are more favourable. It may take a decade of patience and generosity, but recognizing the prospects for the alternatives, someone in Europe needs to commit to doing ‘whatever it takes’. Within Europe national interests are closely aligned: neither France nor Britain wishes to keep their interventions national and other members cannot reasonably expect to free-ride. African states are now sufficiently alarmed to cooperate. In consequence, the European Commission is unlikely to find a significant foreign policy issue than is more promising than support for a serious regional African security force.
Mali is an object lesson in how not to manage European security policy for Africa. Support came belatedly as a panic response to the prospect of catastrophe, and was then only feasible by reverting to a colonial mode of operation. Such an approach does not belong in the 21st Century.
This column also appears on Social Europe Journal.